Friday Hoyden*: Michelle Gomez

* yes, I know FH is belated again.


Michelle Gomez

Michelle Gomez, in PR shots for the surreal hospital comedy Green Wing

Gomez is an actor I’ve enjoyed watching for some time, and when I read that she had chosen to play Katharine in a new RSC staging of The Taming of the Shrew I wondered why on earth she had agreed to be in that monstrously misogynist play, whose enduring popularity relies solely on the comedy fireworks in the early scenes between Petruchio and Kate, and the ability of the Kate to gloss over the humiliations she receives. I was disappointed by the idea that Gomez’s glorious abilities in physical comedy were going to be used simply to mask the horror of Katherine’s annihilation yet again. I should have had more faith.


Image from the RSC


Gomez hasn’t had anything like the mostly swooning press that David Tennant has had for his Hamlet, and it appears to be for reasons other than her performance: for most in the audience this staging is too disturbing, contrasting the farce elements forcefully with Kate’s utter degradation to chilling effect, and it’s also far too separate from the comic character that the audience thinks it knows.


Image from Green Wing

Image from the RSC

To present the brutality of this play without apology is a most unfashionable choice, but to me it seems that it actually makes it more of a feminist production than those which portray a Kate who actually loves her abuser and spouts his doctrines on feminine obedience as some sort of game, as Charles Spencer elucidates:

There is no doubt, however, that the spectacle of a braggart fortune-hunter bullying and brainwashing his wealthy wife into numb submission is among the cruelest and most disconcerting in Shakespeare, and it is a play I always attend with deep reluctance.[…]The tradition these days is to attempt to soften the piece’s brutality. Kate is often shown to be deeply in love with Petruchio, and ready to go along with what is presented as little more than a game. And the final scene in which she declares her submission, and willingness to place her hand beneath her husband’s foot “may it do him ease” is presented with either heavily signalled irony, or else as a means of shaming Petruchio into realising how hateful his behaviour has been.

In this continuously inventive but punishingly long production, the director Conall Morrisson pays Shakespeare the compliment of staging the play he actually wrote.[…]there is no attempt to soften the play’s constant sadistic cruelty.

That angular actress Michelle Gomez makes a fascinating Kate. In the early scenes, she comes across as a monstrous whip-wielding termagant, driven to the edge of madness by her father’s constant favouritism towards her sister Bianca. She accepts Petruchio’s offer of marriage merely to get out of the house, but the treatment she receives, in which she is reduced to the state of a cowed and grovelling animal, begging for food and kindness, is almost too painful to watch.

This is not comic, and Gomez does not play it as such. It is an unflinching study of abuse.
Charles Spencer, The Telegraph
6th May 2008


Image from the RSC

Though Gomez’s stone-cold belligerence leaves us unmoved when she is knocked about, only a stone could fail to shudder as, dazed and starved, she begs a servant for food and even plucks at her ragged nightdress, offering him her arse in exchange. The dehumanising of Kate continues until she recites the final speech, advising wives to be obedient, like a scary robot.
Rhoda Koenig, The Independent
Monday, 5 May 2008

The production stages the Shrew that most of us would be familiar with as a play within a play, which is apparently a very traditional staging, but one that I have not seen, and one which does allow the actor playing both Petruchio and the Everyman who falls into the play as fantasy to be properly punished for his abusive behaviour after Kate’s submission scene, through being humiliated and robbed by the acting troupe. This device appears to not be to everybody’s taste:

Morrison’s point is clear: the play is an ugly male fantasy. Retaining the Induction, he transforms Christopher Sly from a drunken Warwickshire beggar into an urban yob. […] a hectic, wham-bam, commedia-influenced version of The Shrew which fulfils his wildest, sadistic dreams. […]Morrison is not the first to give the play an explicatory context; but in so doing deprives it of charm. […] Everything about this Petruchio is brutal […]The interpretation has a limiting effect on Michelle Gomez’s Kate. Gomez, in the early scenes, is all fire and whipcracking energy. […] Later Gomez endures Petruchio’s physical and psychological torture with stoicism and delivers the famous speech of submission with a steely, implacable calm. There is an inevitable pay-off as the production returns to the initial framing-device. But, although the final gesture is one of female revenge, Gomez is given too little chance to display the sardonic wit of which we know she is capable.
Michael Billington, The Guardian
Friday May 2 2008


Image from the RSC

Is presenting the abusive degradation so clearly enough to redeem the brutal joy taken by the script and usually the audience in the comedic humiliation aspects of this play? Not going by the macho tone to some reviews:

the RSC, doing its familiar and well-loved Carry on Shakespeare routine. And thoroughly enjoyable it is, too. Hell, where else in the clenched-buttocked world of theatreland can you wallow in three hours’ worth of joyous, unrepentant misogyny and snigger along to racist jokes of the type unseen since Love Thy Neighbour disappeared from our television screens?
Rod Liddle, The Sunday Times
May 11, 2008

He may possibly have just been piling on the irony a little too thickly, seeing as he makes an arch witticism about this being merely an early work and the playwright might improve to end his review.

It strikes me as an extremely brave choice from both the director and from Gomez to simply play the abuse of Katherine exactly as it is written. Done properly, that has the potential to highlight how spirited and independent women have had their character virtually erased through the social demands placed upon them by marriage, and how living in a society which confers power over women by men in this way leads to such abominations. One does wonder how many actual theatregoers will truly appreciate this message when it’s wrapped up in such froth – for some the contrast will highlight, and for some the contrast will obscure.

The reports of Gomez’s power in this role make me hope that the RSC won’t confine her to Bill’s comedies. I want to see her in Glamis and Dunsinane, with those wonderful hawkish cheekbones and piercing blue eyes infusing fire into the equivocating MacBeth.



Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism

Tags: , , ,

10 replies

  1. LOVE Michelle Gomez.

  2. She is awesome in ‘Green Wing’, completely mad but in a awesome way.
    Would love to see her on stage.

  3. Before she was doing comedy on TV she was doing verrrry serrrrrious theatah, darrrrling. She’s now returned to the stage doing comedies (she was also in the West End revival of Boeing! Boeing!) and I just hope that she gets the opportunity to take all that she’s learnt from comedy back into a totally serious stage show again – the results could be absolutely rivetting.
    For those who’ve never caught Green Wing, I’ve hunted down a few video clips:
    Sue White Long Arms
    A wackiness vignette over the closing credits:A handbag?
    Martin’s exam results
    Montage of classic Sue White moments (9 mins)

  4. orlando hasn’t turned up to comment yet on the possibility of Gomez as Lady M – not a fan?

  5. I feel just terrible about lagging on this one. It’s one of those things that give me just too much to think about and much too much to say.
    First, may I tangentally, smugly, tell Green Wing fans that I saw Tamsin Greig play Beatrice (twice) and she was WONDERFUL. The production was politically engaged but still funny and romantic. In fact, I would like to nominate her as a Friday Hoyden, because I love, love, love her.
    Next I have to confess that I don’t know Gomez at all, but I do believe that British comediens, as a rule, make the best dramatic actors, because they understand about timing, nuanced delivery and rapport with the other actors in their space.
    As to the current Shrew, I don’t trust Charles Spencer as a critic (read the things he’s said about Measure for Measure for some truly alarming ignorance about sexual abuse). A critic I do respect, Hardy Cook, had more reservations about the show. Here’s a quote from the Shakespeare chat group he runs, with a link to recent discussion about the play:

    yet another modern attempt to stage _Shrew_, and again to my tastes, another execrable rendition of it. I considered this version’s attempt to use the drunken, hooligan-on-the-town, Sli Induction as pornography — the audience is complicit in condoning abuse against women in general and Kate in particular for all but the last five minutes, the “socially redeeming” section, in which the hooligan gets his comeuppance by being denied his raping Kate whom he had apparently put into a state of shock in which she appeared incapable of resisting his having his way with her. I still believe that it is impossible to stage _Shrew_ in the twenty-first century.
    (See my comments at http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2007/0667.html )

    Oh sod it: can I write you a guest post about Shrew? Otherwise I’m going to natter on much too long here.

  6. Next I have to confess that I don’t know Gomez at all, but I do believe that British comediens, as a rule, make the best dramatic actors, because they understand about timing, nuanced delivery and rapport with the other actors in their space.

    Totally agreed.

    Oh sod it: can I write you a guest post about Shrew? Otherwise I’m going to natter on much too long here.

    YES PLEASE!

  7. First, may I tangentally, smugly, tell Green Wing fans that I saw Tamsin Greig play Beatrice (twice) and she was WONDERFUL. The production was politically engaged but still funny and romantic. In fact, I would like to nominate her as a Friday Hoyden, because I love, love, love her.

    Damn fine idea, I’ll add her to the list. The way that she plays with physical awkwardness in her roles is especially effective.

  8. Although Petruccio deserves no admiration for his efforts, I must say that Michelle Gomez as Katherine would have made the most formidable, terrifying opponent for any male taking her on. This, I imagine, would have made her submission all the more devastating to watch.

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